Hazel McHaffie

St Andrew’s and St George’s West church

Hazards aplenty

As they say, no experiences are wasted for a writer. Not even negative ones.

It’s that time again – the annual giant Christian Aid Sale held in the splendid premises of St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church in the centre of Edinburgh. Selling thousands upon thousands of books, art works, ephemera, music, their aspirations are as high as their steeple: it’s always mobbed, and I, as any writer would, rejoice each year that physical books are still so very much alive.

Each year I go at least twice – once to deliver copies of my own books (as requested) before it opens, once to buy – and every time I’m staggered at the number of helpers involved, cheerful kindly people who don’t bat an eyelid when someone asks for a specific title or six, or hands them a large note expecting lots of small change. Such calm under pressure is a joy to behold. This time my second trip was about an hour after the doors opened. First impressions were fantastic – bright sunshine, happy fresh assistants, orderly boxes of books, hundreds of avid readers milling everywhere. The gangways between the trellis tables are narrow so you don’t need to be squeamish about bodily contact, and you are expected to take responsibility for your own health and safety – unmarked steps, dips underfoot, minor obstacles aplenty. But the atmosphere is relaxed and convivial, and there’s plenty of give and take.

So black marks to the folk who parked empty wheelchairs and buggies right across pathways, who thought it expedient to gather right beside the tables to natter, who spread their possessions over the boxes while they browsed denying others access, or who left their long-suffering husbands on corners necessitating inconvenient detours down steps and onto the road. And a special penalty to the two who trundled enormous hard suitcases right through the masses with sublime disregard for ankles and shins – yep, I was one of the victims. But I escaped with no lasting damage and a modest collection of purchases, and I raise a salute to the wonderful people who give their time and energies so tirelessly to this excellent cause and come up smiling.

Rather stupidly I went with two specific authors in mind – Stephen King and Mary Elizabeth Braddon – and before you ask, no, I certainly didn’t ask any of the volunteers for them!  There was no evidence of either, but I was thinking about King as the bus trundled me home. He has a neat way of expressing what I’m thinking about. Take this thought:
I’ve always wondered who I am when I write because once I’m doing it, I’m not in the room with myself.
It takes me a while to find myself again after an intense period of writing, and it certainly did the following night when I was deep in a psychological discussion with my characters.  Only vaguely did I become aware of a rumpus outside … raised voices … smoke …  hello? DJ had managed to set the garden shed alight and the air was alive with the sound of helpful neighbours sounding warnings and thick acrid smoke! By the time I’d re-entered the real world, DJ had the garden hose on full-tilt, damping down the smouldering structure, someone had called the fire brigade, and a crisis had been narrowly averted. I was left with no role other than redundant spectator. As the reassuring operations commander said, surveying the canisters of gas, tins of paint and fuel, and sundry other inflammables, laid out on the path afterwards: it could have been a whole lot worse. So, again, not much significant damage mercifully, but a few revisions to the to-do list and some changed priorities.

I might be dealing with mounting horror in my fictional world but it’s still a safer place than the here-and-now it seems!

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Let’s hear it for the book!

It’s May … Christian Aid week again … which means the monarch of all secondhand book sales. Each year the St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church in George Street in Edinburgh hosts this fantastic week long event to help address world poverty. Since it started in 1974 the sale has raised in excess of £2m for the charity.

Preparation goes on for weeks beforehand involving over 500 volunteers, local authors bring along signed copies of their work, some people bequeath whole libraries to them, countless anonymous people donate their discard-able tomes. And by the time the doors open to the public, over 100,000 books of every kind fill the sanctuary, balconies and both courtyards, rare and valuable items rubbing shoulders with the run-of-the-mill. 100,000 books! Bliss.

Unusually this year I went along on Saturday’s opening day just half an hour after the doors opened. There was already an excited buzz outside on the pavement …

as well as inside …

Plenty of ‘excuse me’s, jostling elbows/large bags, competitive reaching. Long arms and good vision a definite advantage.

This early on there was good evidence of order with books by the same author gathered into boxes, and I could only dimly conceive of the mammoth task that involved. And yet I still heard one customer asking if they were arranged in alphabetical order! The remarkably tolerant volunteer said apologetically, ‘Sorry. There just wasn’t time for that.’ Bless her. Of course, it was the beginning of the week long effort … and the rain was holding off … and the snell east wind had abated. She could still feel her fingers and toes and didn’t have rain dripping off the polythene covers onto her trousers. But even so.

So the customer must tour the tables, row after row after row of them, grouped under banner signposts to find the titles they’re after. Specialised non-fiction tomes and sets varying in price; most hard-cover novels £2 a pop; paperbacks £1. Amazing bargains. And I’m sure many people cheerfully stump up far more than the asking price.

Inside the stalls range from the obscure to the classical and there are phenomenal bargains to be had. Having just read about the illuminators of ancient Turkey, this intriguing book held my attention.

But despite the serious temptation, I limited my own purchases to one carriable-home-on-the-bus bag which included these novels …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But my biggest kick came from standing on the balcony watching all these earnest browsers digging into boxes on every topic you can think of. Wanting, buying, loving books! Yep, the real hold-in-your-hand hard copy book is certainly nowhere near in terminal decline. Half-way round I beat a retreat to the basement cafe to fortify myself for a second wave of literary rummaging and then discovering more lovely and unusual finds in the antiques and collectables department.

Huge congratulations to all who sustain this brilliant endeavour.

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Poverty and riches

It’s Christian Aid week again, with its focus on ‘helping those in poverty out of poverty‘. For more years than I care to count I’ve been involved in door-to-door collecting in my home town as well as events in the city, but this is one of the wettest and coldest CA weeks I can remember – we even had hail and snow to vary the precipitation! But the weather notwithstanding, beetling in and out of Edinburgh (with camera secreted somewhere about the person) has reminded me of what an amazing city it is.

Spectacularly  silhouetted … quaintly romantic … quietly regal … monumentally incongruous … gloriously artistic … and much, much more. But it’s to this church that my thoughts go specially this week – St Andrew’s and St George’s West in George Street. The site of the biggest fundraising event for Christian Aid in the UK. St Andrews and St Georges This king size book sale has raised over £100,000 each year over the past five years to help the poor and underprivileged; that’s well over a million since the sale started in 1974. And on the first day alone this year it took £46,700! What a lot of books that represents.The book saleAs part of this huge effort, the convenor, Lady Mary Davidson, writes to local authors inviting them to donate signed copies of their own works which are then sold in a special section. A lovely idea. She’s fiendishly hard working but still makes a point of chatting to us when we call in, and writing to us afterwards. Makes you feel special even when you’re not.

And, of course, I simply HAVE to buy a stack of books every year, even though my shelves are groaning already.  Well, it’s a worthy cause. The least I can do.

Long live the book!

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